This article discusses the usefulness of Niklas Luhmann’s systems theory for the study of religion. Postcolonial deconstructivism, sometimes labelled ‘critical religion’, in the style of R. McCutcheon, T. Fitzgerald, and others doubts the applicability of this highly complex and abstract theory as such. Their proponents argue that the idea of an ‘autopoietic’ social system called ‘religion’ is a genuinely modern Western concept by which ‘religion’, as a generic term, is inappropriately projected or imposed onto non-Western and premodern cultures. Furthermore, they claim that Luhmann proposes a sui generis concept of religion. While due to a lack of shared theoretical premises, it seems to be all but impossible to reconcile a systems-theoretical approach to the study of religion with this strand of a radical postcolonial deconstructivism, other critiques of Luhmann’s concept of religion deserve a closer look.
As is well known, Luhmann defines religion as one social sub-system among others (such as politics, economy, sport, law, family, art). Social systems, he claims, are constituted, upheld, and reproduced by communication which demarcates the borders of the respective system and thus generates a system environment. Communication is possible only between the elements within a given system but not between the elements of different systems. Accordingly, Luhmann defines social systems as self-generating, or ‘autopoietic’. Social systems are operationally closed but cognitively open as they perceive irritations from their environment and react to them. Each social system, according to Luhmann, has its own binary code along which all communication within the system is structured. In the case of religion this code is transcendence/immanence. Furthermore, in modern society, Luhmann claims, social systems are primarily differentiated in accordance with their specific functions for society as a whole. The function of religion is to transfer indeterminability (transcendence) into determinability (immanence).
Some sociologists, such as Rudi Laermans and Gert Verschraegen (2001), as well as scholars of religion, such as Peter Beyer (2001, 2006) have criticized Luhmann for defining transcendence/immanence as the religious code. Laermans and Verschraegen accuse Luhmann’s view of religion of being “all too obviously based on the theological self-observations – or the self-descriptions – of (Christian!) religion”. From a somewhat different perspective, Peter Beyer also blames Luhmann’s approach for being deductive and “theological”. He proposes to replace the code transcendence/immanence with the code blessed/damned or salvation/damnation.
In my view both Laermans/Verschraegen and Beyer miss the point because they misinterpret Luhmann’s concept of ‘transcendence’. Not only is Beyer’s code ‘blessed/damned’ much more ‘theologically’ charged than the code ‘transcendence/immanence’. Luhmann repeatedly notes that he uses ‘transcendence’ in a non-theological way, entirely disconnected from religious semantics. ‘Transcendence’ in his theory is simply the horizon of an appresented indeterminability that emerges as soon as communication takes place. Because every communication in every social system by necessity selects between what is chosen (presented) and what is rejected or ignored (but still appresented), it produces an indeterminable remainder, causing uncertainty and irritation. The special social function of the religious system is to deal with this fundamental communicative operation of differentiating between the presented and the appresented. Therefore, to dismiss or replace the binary code transcendence/ immanence means to deprive the religious system of its social function. In my view Luhmann’s functional theory of religion can only work as long as the fundamental premise of transcendence/immanence being the religious code is maintained.
Even though Luhmann’s critics – in my view – clearly misinterpret his theory, it cannot be denied that the application of systems theory in the study of religion poses some serious problems. These problems largely result from the high degree of abstraction of Luhmann’s theory which makes it difficult to relate it to real people. On the other hand, viewed from the perspective of historical discourse analysis, which is based on the assumption that there is no way to go behind the discourse anyway, systems theory may provide valuable heuristic tools and concepts for analyzing emic negotiations regarding the boundary between ‘religion’ and ‘the secular,’ irrespective of the actual usage of the term ‘religion’ in the emic discourses. This is what distinguishes a historical discourse analysis informed by Luhmann’s systems theory from recently proposed approaches of a ‘discursive study of religion’.
Kleine, Christoph (2016). “Niklas Luhmann und die Religionswissenschaft: Geht das zusammen?” Zeitschrift für Religionswissenschaft 24/1: 47–82. doi:10.1515/zfr-2016-0005 .